The hidden cost of school exclusions

The cost to society of child exclusions can be a hidden one.

Rates of permanent exclusions from schools in the London Borough of Southwark have doubled in less than a decade, mirroring a worrying national trend. Why is society ultimately failing so many children and how do we turn the page?

Should eating a biscuit during class merit a period of enforced removal from school?

You may be forgiven for thinking this an unlikely question and one that verges on the humorous or absurd. For June* this was the direct consequence of choosing to skip her lunchtime break to catch up on schoolwork. With hunger kicking in later that day, she took out a biscuit and began eating. The resulting action taken by the school was swift in its execution. June received a fixed-term exclusion for the incident, a punishment which followed an identical sanction for the act of forgetting her PE kit and leaving it at home.

June’s exclusion was one of dozens of stories I heard from children who had been removed from schools in the London Borough of Southwark where I serve as a local councillor, a borough for which I authored a recent report on the growing challenge of school exclusions. Rates of permanent exclusion have doubled in Southwark since 2012/13, a shocking figure which matches a wider national trend. While permanent exclusions have increased by 71% across the UK in the years between 2012–2018, the number of ‘fixed-term’ exclusions like June’s case have also risen rapidly, 54%, from 267,520 cases in 2012/13 to 410,800 in 2017/18. Some figures show that academies exclude at greater rates than other schools.

A worrying national trend in exclusions

Boroughs across London have reported similar increases in exclusions, while councillors across the UK from Teeside, Yorkshire and Cornwall have all recently spoken out on the ‘concerning’ number of pupils being removed from classrooms.

This is no longer a point of statistical curiosity for education chiefs or local journalists. We find ourselves at the heart of a national exclusions crisis. One which harbours a disturbing dimension when considering the most affected groups.

Government statistics have shown how mixed race and black Caribbean children are three times more likely to be excluded from school. Department for Education research we looked at uncovers how ethnic minority children, along with those with special educational needs and children eligible for free school meals are all over-represented in exclusion statistics. It’s a roll call of children who are far more in need of support, rather than dismissal from something so central to growing up as schooling.

In Southwark we found that in recent years 39–45% of exclusions were of children with some form of special educational need. The personal stories of children such as June were often chilling in the casual nature of their removal from schools, leading to a profoundly damaging impact on children who are often already vulnerable. In a related trend, numbers of home educated children are rising rapidly, and it is often the children with greatest levels of need who find themselves at home. Our council officers identified that a significant portion of these children were also the very same who had additional needs that are likely to pose challenges for families suddenly trying to provide a suitable education. We had serious concerns that these children were being “off-rolled”, the illegal practice of removing a young person from the school roll without proper process. Invariably, off-rolling is done at the school’s interests, not the child’s.

From schoolbook pages to society’s margins

It doesn’t take an education or youth welfare expert to project the impact to society from the rise in exclusions. Children who have been excluded are far more likely to be arrested or cautioned with 23% of all young offenders having been permanently removed from school. Match this with the number of children excluded in any given year (only 0.2%) and we have a fundamental problem of outcomes. The human cost of rising exclusions led to a review chaired by Edward Timpson in 2019 which produced a number of strong recommendations. Many of those have never been implemented.

Schools in Southwark have performed remarkably well in a time of constrained budgets and high levels of vulnerability. With 93% of schools in the borough rated good or outstanding (and 33% in the prized latter category) it is clear the significant majority of Southwark’s children achieve good levels of development in their early years, right through to their GCSEs and beyond. Yet Southwark has largely followed the rising trend of national exclusions, with schools in the borough now removing children at a rate above the London and national rate. Once in a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) the outcomes for these children make for stark reading. In 2017/18 no children attending alternative provision achieved between grade 9–4 in English and Maths.

When opening a door leads to more closed doors

Opening a door ‘too hard’ was an incident which led to a 5-day fixed term exclusion for Theo, a pupil who had previously been excluded for missing an exam due to illness. For parents of children such as Theo who are suddenly excluded for minor infractions or isolated moments, the impact can be significant. A family member of a child in secondary school lamented that their child was off-rolled in the middle of a crucial time as they were choosing their GCSE options in year 9. No other school was found for the child, meaning they ended up without a school. A parent of a child moved to a PRU noted the risk of increased gang involvement and wondered whether increased funding for mental health support and combating bullying could help avoid the types of scenario which led to her child’s exclusion.

During our investigations we discovered that for many children, exclusions at secondary school are often the result of longstanding challenges. Instead early interventions at primary school can be a far more effective means of tackling problems. Eileen Shannon is a head teacher at Victoria Drive, a PRU in Wandsworth which uses a ‘nurture model’ to work with children for two terms with a major focus on social, emotional and mental health needs alongside working with parents and family. A tracking exercise conducted by Victoria Drive found no children which attended the referral unit ever resurfaced in Wandsworth’s secondary PRU.

Turning the page — what needs to be done

The first thing we in Southwark need to do is start from first principles and champion a 100% inclusion commitment in conjunction with schools. Starting with this, here are three specific ideas that I want to see the enacted in Southwark, which could provide a useful template to other councils:

  1. We need to work more closely with schools, making sure everyone’s on the same page, for example by agreeing a joint Charter and an annual inclusion report to track progress against its target. Another way in which we should work together better is by facilitating peer learning between schools to discern what works and how it can be scaled up.

  2. We also need to rethink our PRU, moving towards a nurturing model with continued registration of children at mainstream schools wherever possible to avoid losing children to circumstance. A re-thinking of Southwark’s alternative educational provision could also help us better understand why a disproportionate number of ethnic minority and Special Educational Needs children are ending up outside of mainstream schools, and what we can do to ensure children aren’t off-rolled against parent’s wishes. Unless parents truly want to home educate, children should be staying on the register of a mainstream school in the borough.

  3. We have to tackle the issue of missing data, without which we’re flying blind. Where data gaps or accuracy concerns are identified, we need to escalate these more quickly with the appropriate regulatory body. We need to ensure schools, including academies, are properly accountable.

Although I say all of this, it is true that schools are often unfairly expected to be the panacea that can soothe any sore; as a parent myself I recognise the many layers in society from family to environment that can influence a child’s behaviour. It’s clear from our report that councils need to work together with schools to provide a truly inclusive environment for children, and identify ways of supporting children from the earliest of ages to avoid increased exclusions in teenage years. The consequences of children who are being summarily excluded from schools today will be felt by us all for many decades as they continue to struggle to be included, whether in schools, in decent jobs, or in society.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of children in this article

As a local councillor for the London Borough of Southwark, Peter Babudu serves as Chair of the Education and Local Economy Scrutiny Commission and is the author of ‘Education: Exclusions and Alternative Provision”, a report into exclusions published in July 2020.

Peter works as the Head of Research and Youth Understanding at a leading youth safety charity and is Chair of The Blagrave Trust. He raises his three children with his wife in Southwark, the borough they grew up in and where he now serves as a local councillor.